The beginning of this summer marked the completion of the first in-person National Postal Forum (NPF) since the start of the COVID-19 global pandemic. This is a signal to the industry that represents a return to normal activity — an outcome that is important to brands, print service providers (PSPs, aka outsourced print and mail providers), and the general public receiving communications. But why?

The Value of Print and Mail to Society

Print and mail play an important role in how we communicate, despite the continued concerns over total mail volume, USPS service commitments, and digital transformation strategies designed to augment print and mail (or completely replace it). Readers of the May/June issue of Mailing Systems Technology know that the topics of saving money, optimizing processes (people, data, and technology), and taking advantage of print and mail opportunities in different sectors dovetailed with the educational tracks and vendor displays at NPF 2022 in Phoenix. There is so much to talk about when it comes to communicating with people, and it is complicated by the vast number of methods and technologies that can be leveraged to achieve communication goals.

A Simple Question with Significant Impact

What file format are you leveraging when it comes to creating and delivering communications to recipients?

This may seem like a simple question, and it may seem to pale in comparison to topics like data strategy, CASS, PAVE, NCOALINK, or even the tracking and delivery notifications of mail pieces. Digital transformation and your digital strategy may be top of mind, especially as we continue to see changes in how consumers want to receive, consume, and reply to communications since the beginning of the pandemic. Managing the file format, the print production, and the mailing fulfillment processes can become a competitive differentiator for your brand and organization as you navigate new output channels and ongoing changes in customer preference.

What do we mean when we say file format? This is how the file containing the designed content is saved. While the source files might be developed in InDesign, Quark, Quadient, or XMpie, to be used for print or e-delivery, they are saved in one of the common production formats. For print and mail, common ones include PostScript (PS), Advanced Function Presentation (AFP), PCL, Metacode, and Portable Document Format (better known as PDF). Depending on where you sit in the communications chain of custody, PDF may seem the most familiar, with PostScript following quickly behind. This is your first exercise: Find out what format your organization is using to produce print and mail communications.

Evolution Doesn’t Always Lead to Best Practices

Like the USPS, print and mail processes (and e-delivery) have continued to evolve. However, those evolutions may not have resulted in the most efficient, optimized, or sustainable combinations of people, processes, and technology. Consider the W. Edwards Deming quote shared in Wes Friesen’s article from the May/June issue, People First: “Eighty-five percent of the reasons for failure are deficiencies in the systems and processes rather than the employee.” Customers are still leveraging many different ways to create their print and mail (as well as digitally delivered versions). Some processes are dictated by the systems in place today to create content. For many organizations, PDF is the format for the majority of the work they are taking in. From a strategic point of view, this should be a goal.

Why PDF? First, it is an ISO standard, which means it is being actively managed, developed, and improved through working groups filled with knowledgeable industry professionals. This is a huge value as it means that there are specific guidelines for structure, behavior, and capability. Being an ISO standard isn’t unique to PDF, but it is unique to a file format that can be leveraged across both print and digital delivery channels. It has been proven through research and real-world applications to be the most efficient method of moving communications through a production process to delivery to the customer. In 2018, the PDF Association estimated there were trillions of PDFs in the world, with billions more created every day. In September of 2021, the PDF Association said that PDF is the third most popular file type on the web behind HTML and XHTML. It also makes up 90% of the searchable file types when compared to .docx, .pptx, and .xslx.

The Competitive Advantage Connection

Okay, so PDF is prolific, but how does that translate into a competitive advantage for print and mail? Optimization and flexibility.

For example, ViaTech in Texas leverages PDF to improve processes from the time the PDF is accepted for production through to the time it is delivered to a recipient. By pairing workflow automation software with postal optimization software, they were able to recapture 50 hours a day and redeploy valuable employees to more important tasks. Add that up: 50 hours times a typical hourly rate multiplied by an entire year. As you look at your digital transformation strategy, you may find that you need to leverage PDF for electronic delivery channels or accommodate ISO standardization to drive high-quality transformation to HTML formats for responsive and engaging digital experiences.

PDF can be adjusted for the intent, which can save your production processing time by reducing the weight or size of the PDF file. DataProse, a PSP also in Texas, has seen up to a 95% file size reduction by employing PDF optimization technologies. Since PDFs can be fully indexed (a way of documenting the content and triggering actions), this means more intelligent batches of work can be generated. This then optimizes the production and commingling of mail in an automated, cost-effective manner.

Getting non-PDF work? 2022 is the time to revisit your workflow structure. By moving away from a legacy file type such as PCL, you could realize benefits like Borns Group, which standardized on PDF in 2019 and added $400,000 in incremental yearly sales revenue. They enjoy the ability to provide better customer satisfaction to their print and mail customers by being able to re-run postal optimization after last-minute customer changes, re-order the print file run, and make their mailing window. Using PDF as their standard, along with software, means it takes an hour or less when it used to take up to a day when handled manually. The bottom line is that PDF has the potential for cost recovery and reduction in many areas. Homework: walk your workflow from the time documents are created or accepted as print-ready files with the goal of understanding what happens through the processes. Then apply the PDF advantages to see if you can drive process improvements.

Jonathan Malone-McGrew is Senior Director of Engagement, Solimar Systems. With family roots in the print and digital communications space, Jonathan brings an understanding of client and partner environments, technologies and the resulting challenges. Responsible for partner and client engagement, he is always willing to lend his expertise.

This article originally appeared in the September/October, 2022 issue of Mailing Systems Technology.